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Restore federal forests and rural communities

It’s uncommon for someone from rural northeast Washington to testify in front of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.) now serves as the ranking Democrat. But on March 24 I had the opportunity to share a story that’s become too common across the Pacific Northwest. My story comes with a message: After years of neglect, it’s time for Congress to restore the health of our forests and rural communities.

Our family-owned forest products company was founded in the early 1950s.  Through the good times and bad, we’ve evolved and innovated as the industry and federal forest policies have changed. We’ve focused on technological advancements and ecologically minded forest management, and have been active participants in collaboration with environmentalists to help resolve contentious issues.  Our mills predominately rely on small diameter timber that comes from forest thinning, and the biomass component of forest management activities is utilized to produce renewable energy.

{mosads}The demand for our products is strong. Yet despite our advances and commitment to good stewardship, it is uncertain whether our company, our industry and our workforce will thrive for another 60 years.  Like any manufacturer, we depend on a reliable supply of raw materials to make our products.  These materials once enabled us to operate three mills and provide 500 family-wage jobs in rural communities in NE Washington.  Yet as the federal government shifted to a “hands off” approach to forest management, we were forced to close two of those mills and layoff many valued employees. 

Our story isn’t unique.  In fact it’s become common in communities that are near federal forests and rely on the forest sector.  The steep decline in federal timber harvests have taken a deep economic toll.  It’s partly why, for example, nearly one in four residents of Ferry County live in poverty compared to one in ten King County residents. 

The health of our nation’s federal forests continues to decline due to overstocking, disease, drought, insect infestations and catastrophic wildfires resulting from a lack of sound management. In fact, the Forest Service says that between 60-80 million acres of National Forest land are at risk.  In Eastern Washington, we’ve seen a marked increase in beetle infestation activity, particularly on National Forests.  Last year we also witnessed the largest wildfire in our state’s history, the Carlton Complex, burn over 250,000 acres.

Meanwhile, over the past 30 years we have gone from over 600 lumber mills in the Northwest to a current level of approximately 120.   Many areas of the country are largely devoid of the forest products industry infrastructure needed to restore and maintain federal forests and provide employment opportunities. In northeast Washington, we still have the mills and contractors needed to defray the costs of federal forest projects. Unfortunately, if something isn’t done to increase the level of management on the Colville NF we too will lose mills, jobs and our ability to treat the threats facing this forest. 

Today collaboration is seen as the model for developing ecologically-sound forest projects.  Our community has used it successfully to treat 55,000 acres on the Colville National Forest.  But even collaborative projects are hampered by costly litigation and agency analysis paralysis that slow the pace and scale of management.  While we haven’t seen lawsuits challenging projects on the Colville, our forest operates under the same broken system that decades of lawsuits, court-imposed requirements, and agency bureaucracy have created. It has also increased the costs of preparing and implementing projects, and the resulting spike in wildfire suppression costs has taken the agency away from its core mission of managing forests for the greatest good.  

Our communities need Congress to take action on a solution that addresses these barriers for responsible forest management.  Otherwise we’ll continue to see an endless cycle of unhealthy forests and communities. 

Vaagen is president of Vaagen Bros. Lumber Inc. of Colville, Wash.

Tags Maria Cantwell

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